Football Icon. 7 : Juninho
Antônio Augusto Ribeiro Reis Jr. aka Juninho Pernambucano (born Recife, Pernambucano, Brazil, 30th January 1975) began his career at hometown club Sport Club do Recife, playing futsal for their youth team until being awarded a senior contract in 1993.
Like many top Brazilian players, Juninho cites the experience he gained playing futsal in his early years as an excellent foundation for his professional career:
“I learnt my technical skills in futsal. Futsal requires split-second decisions, fast attacking with few players and good positioning, as well as being very physically demanding. Every player who started out playing futsal is one step ahead of the game.”
In his one and only full season as a player in the senior side, Juninho helped Sport win the inaugural Copa do Nordeste and the regional league title, alongside many of his friends from the futsal team. This group of players, coming through the ranks and creating success for their local club, was known as the ‘Golden Generation of Futsal’.
However, somewhat inevitably, Juninho swapped Recife for Rio and made the move from his local side to Brazilian giant CR Vasco da Gama in time for the start of the 1995 season. He quickly impressed the Vasco fans with his smooth passing style and technical ability, particularly from dead balls. Even now Vasco fans honour his freekick against River Plate on their way to victory in the 1998 Copa Libertadores, chanting the name of the “Reizinho de São Januário” (Little King of São Januário). He would also win the Copa Mercosur in 2000 to add to his two Brazilian Championship titles.
Despite being part of a Vasco super team alongside Romario and Edmundo at the time, Juninho opted to move on again in 2001, this time to Europe. He arrived at Lyon having never lived outside of Brazil, but his humble personality allowed him to quickly adapt to the new culture. To the great benefit of Lyon, he was similarly comfortable on the French playing fields, creating goals for the likes of Sidney Govou and Sonny Anderson as Lyon won the first league title of their history in his debut season at the club. His influence would grow as Lyon retained the title the following year, with Juninho finishing as the club’s top scorer on thirteen goals.
So began a period of domestic dominance for Olympique Lyonnais, who racked up consecutive titles for the following five seasons before being usurped by Bordeaux in 08/09, the only occasion Juninho would miss out on the Ligue 1 trophy during his time at the club. He left Lyon as club captain in the summer of 2009 having made 344 appearances and scoring 100 goals (the last coming in the form of a penalty won and converted by Juninho in his final appearance for the club. He is the seventh highest appearance maker and fourth highest goalscorer in the club’s history. Only Gregory Coupet and Sidney Govou have won more honours for Lyon, by way of their additional League Cup win the year before Juninho arrived. All three are some of the most decorated players in the history of French football.
Sadly Juninho became a target of criticism when Lyon failed to win a trophy in what would be his final season. He became uncomfortable with the amount of pressure on him as the team’s iconic player and expressed his desire to leave to chairman Jean-Michel Aulas. Out of respect to such a loyal player, Lyon agreed to terminate Juninho’s contract a year early and he was free to move wherever he wished. Despite offers from many top clubs in Europe, he chose to head instead to Qatar, hoping to prolong his career and his fitness:
“I wanted to keep playing well, while I knew there’d be fewer matches over the course of the season and so it would be easier to handle.”
Once again Juninho carried success with him like a pocket charm. In his first season at Al-Gharafa he scored seven goals on the way to a domestic treble, also reaching the quarter-finals of the Asian Champions League. Just like at Lyon, it was the best season in the club’s history. However he was unable to repeat the feat in his second season, with Al-Gharafa having to settle for second place and a cup final defeat in 2011. At the end of the Qatari season, Juninho announced that he would be returning to Vasco, describing his relationship with the club as “partners in joy and sorrow” and revealing that he would be paid a figure about on par with the minimum wage in Brazil in an effort to be “fair to the fans”. He said on his return, “I’m not the Juninho of ten years ago, but I can still contribute a lot. The fans can rely on the delivery and fighting spirit that I bring.” And the trophies.
Juninho now plays football for LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer in the United States.